FOI saved? Maybe, just maybe

At just after midnight, an embargo (such as they still exist in the digital world) on the contents of a report by a parliamentary committee into the Freedom of Information Act was lifted.

The report, by the Justice Select Committee, was prompted by a request from Government to look into the effectiveness of the Freedom of Information Act.

I was one of the journalists asked to give evidence to the committee, and some references to what I said are made in the report.

My biggest fear prior to the publication of today’s report was the apparent growing momentum behind the idea that a charge should be applied to make use of the FOI Act. In the reams of written consultations sent to the committee, various bodies were making mutterings about wishing to charge to somehow reduce the number of requests being made.

Birmingham City Council was perhaps the most audacious, suggesting a flat fee of £25. Others suggested a fee for only certain types of requesters – eg businesses or journalists.

During the evidence session I was at, the MPs on the committee gave little away on the matter of charging for FOI requests. If anything, I left with the impression that – in the current financial climate – the argument that FOI was expensive and that news organisations should pay to have research done for them (as one MP put it) was gaining traction with the committee.

Fortunately, I was wrong. The committee has concluded that chargings for FOI requests would be wrong, as would trying to charge certain types of requesters – largely because it would be difficult to police.

Particularly heartening it that they don’t appear to have a huge amount of time for the idea that FOI is a costly activity for public authorities to comply with, pointing out (as I have said on this blog several times – and perhaps said to the committee too) that if public organisations were more efficient, they could keep costs down themselves.

In a quote issued via press release this morning, Sir Alan Beith, chair of the committee, said:

“Evidence we have seen suggests that reducing the cost of FoI can be achieved if the way public authorities deal with requests is well-thought through.”

“Complaints about the cost of FoI will ring hollow when made by public authorities which have failed to invest the time and effort needed to create an efficient freedom of information scheme.”

There was other good news in the report – if you’re someone who wants FOI to operate more effectively, including calls for:

  • Higher fines should be imposed for destruction of information or data and the time limit should be removed on prosecution of these offences.
  • All public bodies subject to the Act should be required to publish data on the timeliness of their response to freedom of information requests.
  • The building in of new elements of the Act which would mean that private bodies taking on work done by the public sector traditionally would be covered by FOI.

There are areas for concern in the report, though:

  • The law should be amended to protect universities from having to disclose research and data before the research has been published.
  • A proposal to reduce the number of hours allocated to an FOI request before it reaches the cost ceiling from 18 to 16 hours.

Quite what the impact of that second point would be on FOI requests remains to be seen – and the committee suggests research be carried out by government in the meantime to establish that.

And that, maybe, is the key point. There is nothing which obliges the government to take any action on this report. The coalition government’s approach to openness and FOI still seems a little confused. There’s no doubt senior ministers are luke warm on FOI, and Francis Maude’s idea that open data can make redundant FOI is frankly laughable. FOI hands the power to request information to the requester, open data hands control of release to the public sector again.

Will they take action? Who knows. We can only hope they do. There was compelling evidence from many quarters – not least excellent FOI officers themselves, such as FOIMan – to support what journalists were saying about the value of the Act. And maybe that’s the key here. Too many people have tried to focus on who is making the requests. So it was good to see the committee making the point that organisations should stop worrying about who is asking for information and just focus on the information itself:

“It must also be recognised that the focus of the Act is whether the disclosure of information is justified, not who is asking for that information.”

That’s a point which has been sadly lost by many organisations still uncomfortable with being held to account by the public, or the media. It’s good to that spirit of the Act hasn’t been lost on the MPs tasked with looking at the Act.

2 comments

  1. “Complaints about the cost of FoI will ring hollow when made by public authorities which have failed to invest the time and effort needed to create an efficient freedom of information scheme.”

    Fair enough. Because I agree, we should publish everything possible. But are we allowed to complain about politicians who complain about the cost of administrative overheads which means that it is practically impossible to resource FOI properly, because oddly, management seem to think that actual delivery of services is a bit more important?

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